The Right and the Left have watched with a mix of horror and glee as the conservative Heritage Foundation cannibalizes itself. The spectacle has been characterized as a coup, a veritable political assassination of Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint at the hands of Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham.
And while that makes for bloody and compelling theater, according to a person close to Heritage Action, it's an incomplete picture of the conflict.
"There's a lot of cognitive dissonance right now," the source explained on condition of anonymity Monday, "because it doesn't make sense to people that the head of the 501(c)4 — who is perceived as the bomb-thrower in chief — wants to see the think tank become a better think tank."
In other words, Needham doesn't want the throne. He merely wants to restore the kingdom.
More than palace intrigue, the subsequent power struggle has sent shockwaves throughout conservative circles. And it's as complicated as it is significant. So far, the battle lines have been drawn between DeMint loyalists inside the policy-based Heritage Foundation and the politically-focused lobbying arm, Heritage Action.
That conflict became public on Friday after Politico broke the news that DeMint was being ousted by the board of directors for letting political fights get in the way of policy research. Passions are understandably high after DeMint loyalists, including the vice president of research, were sent packing. Information is also low because Heritage and Heritage Action have remained officially silent.
As the dust starts to settle, fingers started getting pointed at Needham. The source dispelled all "those crosscutting narratives," dismissing them as being "built on easy but incorrect assumptions about Needham's role and just given his reputation."
When it comes to Needham's reputation, everyone inside the beltway knows what the source means. Comparatively young, Needham is a 35-year-old, whip-smart Stanford grad with oversized ambitions. As head of Heritage Action's grassroots army, Needham can easily sabotage legislation.
But Needham didn't turn his knife on DeMint, the source said. He didn't organize this current coup. Instead, as other sources confirmed earlier, the personnel change is the result of a board frustrated with researchers playing "whack-a-mole" to keep up with DeMint's alleged demands that the think tank function like a personal Senate office.
And while the way the civil war "is playing out isn't good for anyone who loves Heritage," the source said, Needham now wants to focus on re-ordering the conservative leviathan. What's the look like? It's where the Heritage Foundation manufactures good policy and Heritage Action fights to get those ideas implemented into law.
The source stressed that Needham didn't want things to play out this way. And another separate source told the Washington Examiner on Saturday that Needham tried offering "an olive branch if DeMint wanted to run [Heritage Action], Needham would take a demotion and run research."
Opponents literally found that suggestion laughable. In their mind, Needham is more of an aspiring Caesar than a well-meaning Cincinnatus. And on Saturday, the man who had the research job that Needham reportedly applied for, Vice President of Research James Wallner, took to Twitter to rebut the accusation that Heritage's intellectual product suffered during his tenure. Without explanation or warning, as the Washington Examiner first reported, Wallner was placed on administrative leave Monday.
None of this looks good, the source admitted, "it's certainly an unwelcome distraction for everyone at Heritage and Heritage Action." And he's right.
Just as Capitol Hill prepares to tackle healthcare reform, the biggest conservative voice in politics is choking on itself. Already DeMint's influence seemed like it was waning. The Policy Services and Outreach Department (which DeMint founded and which regularly competed with Heritage Action for influence) curiously stood up congressional staffers for a meeting and inexplicably deleted its Twitter account.
Meanwhile, the source described the scene at Heritage Action as one of misery and uncertainty. Those politicos really liked DeMint, the person explained. And apparently, so does Needham. On Fox News Sunday, Needham praised the fiery, former South Carolina senator for his "courageous conservative career in Washington," an undertaking that has left "the conservative movement … far better off."
During that same interview, Needham was asked if former Breitbart CEO and current White House strategist Steve Bannon would succeed DeMint. He demurred and set off a firestorm speculation in the process.
As multiple sources said earlier, this person close to Heritage Action reiterated that the idea of bringing in Bannon came out of the blue. While there's plenty of respect for the strategist, who Trump recently described as alt-left, the source said the Bannon suggestion seemed non-sequitur.
The next step comes Tuesday when the board of directors gathers in Washington, presumably to drop the ax on DeMint officially. The source denied knowledge of the outcome, insisting only that Needham never wanted to put DeMint's head on the chopping block.
Spokesmen from Heritage and Heritage Action did not respond to numerous and repeated requests for comment.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.